The Current State of Fisheries

This section is based on the DFO sustainable survey and Oceana (2022) and articles on the Inland fishery- importance and status. A limitation of current monitoring approaches is the frequent absence of indigenous stock assessments from the official reports (discussed under Solutions).

The Fishery is an important economic sector, particularly in many remote communities where it represents the greatest economic activity. About 83% by weight of landings come from the wild marine fishery and 85% of Canadian landings are exported, mostly to the USA, particularly lobster, snow/queen crab, shrimp, and farmed salmon. We are also very significant importers of seafood, particularly fish meal and fish oil products, shrimp, herring, lobster, farmed salmon, and tuna (Govender et al., 2016; Winson et al. 2021). Some 45000 people are employed in the marine fishery, and another 33000 in fish preparation and processing. Gross production value in marine fishing is about $ $2.2 billion annually and about double that in processing. Three quarters of employment in the sector is in Atlantic Canada and three-quarters of fish and fish product exports originate in the Atlantic as well (Sundar, 2017)

Of Canada's 194 fish stocks, only 30% are considered healthy (37% don't have enough data to make a determination).  Almost 20% are considered critically depleted and less than 20% have recovery plans in place (Oceana, 2018; Oceana, 2022). It is estimated that over half of all fish stock biomass has disappeared since 1970 (Hutchings et al., 2012)

The goal of fishery regulation and monitoring according to DFO is primarily to conserve fish stocks and protect the marine environment (Reid, 2019). These goals are accomplished through a complicated and historically layered system of input controls – such as restrictions on gear types, limited entry licensing, time and area controls – and, more recently, output controls, such as quotas. The concept of Total Allowable Catch (TAC) is another key tool to manage the fishery: it is a set amount of weight of fish that is permitted to be harvested in a given year, and the amount is set prior to the start of the fishing season based on what fisheries managers believe can be safely harvested without damaging the fish stock.  There are also rules regarding marine bait fish (e.g., mackerel, capelin and herring) which are subject to stock assessments and controls.

West Coast

Five stocks have been critically depleted (Bocaccio rockfish, inside and outside waters Yelloweye rockfish, Pacific herring (Haida Gwaii), and Pink shrimp (SMA 18-19)).  The first four have a recovery plan, and Bocaccio rockfish has recently moved back to healthy status. There is no plan for Pink shrimp.  Other stocks are healthy, cautious or there's insufficient information to make an assessment (Oceana, 2018; Oceana, 2022)

The fleet is 60% smaller than it was in the 1980s, with the number of fishers down 70% (Ecotrust and Suzuki, 2015:9). According to Ahmed (2019), within a context of increasingly industrialised fishing fleets globally, the recent history of fisheries management in the Pacific region is characterised by increasing regulations to manage overcapacity in the fishing fleet. In the 1990s, regulations came into effect through the 'Pacific Salmon Revitalization Strategy,' commonly known as the infamous 'Mifflin Plan,' which divided the Pacific coast into areas and assigned licenses by area, restricting the former ability of fishermen to travel the coast; the Mifflin Plan also introduced gear-based licensing (Canada and BC 1996). So, for example, a boat that had previously been able to fish along the entire coast and use whichever type of gear was most effective for the fishing to be done, was now restricted to a particular area of the coast and only permitted to use, a gillnet. If the fisherman wanted to fish in more than one area, he or she had to buy a license for each area separately, and stack them on his or her vessel. In addition to this, the Mifflin Plan came with a 'buyback' program – salmon fishermen who wanted to retire from the industry could sell their licenses back to the Federal government at the market price. This was another attempt to reduce fleet capacity, and 798 licenses were bought back by the Federal government, although the instability created by the drastic measures of this new plan led 1,274 fishermen offering to sell their licenses (Canada and BC 1996, 6). Finally, a key objective of the Mifflin Plan was to transition DFO towards a risk-averse approach to managing the fisheries, especially in view of the Atlantic Cod collapse of four years prior. This ultimately reduced opportunities to fish even further. The Mifflin Plan was badly received by fishermen and coastal communities, causing job losses, financial instability and gutting small coastal communities that had relied on a few fishing licenses to sustain them (Canada and BC 199). It is still remembered as one of the turning points for why the industry is in such decline even today.

East Coast and Gulf of St. Lawrence

Critically depleted for some time are 6 regional populations of Atlantic cod, 3 populations of White Hake, 4 populations of American plaice, Acadian redfish, and Deepwater redfish.  The collapse of the groundfish stocks, particularly cod, in the late 80s has had a massive negative effect on the fishing fleet, and has also affected other stocks as remaining fishers have shifted to other targets particularly shellfish. The number of boats dropped by about 1/3 after the cod moratorium, and some of the big processors sold off their trawler fleets. The DFO in March 2022 closed the mackerel fishery in Atlantic Canada for the entire year and herring in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence for the spring fishery season, both of which are now also deemed in the critical zone.  This could have knock on effects next year on the lobster and crab sectors which rely on mackerel and herring as bait. Recreational mackerel remains open with restrictions.  Both remain open for Indigenous communities (Harrison, 2022).  Concerns have also been expressed about the state of the capelin fishery in Newfoundland (Oceana, 2022).

The East Coast fishery is substantially larger than the West Coast, but as with the Pacific fishery, significant input and output restrictions have been imposed.  However, the structure of quotas has been different on the East Coast. The transferability problem that plagues the West Coast is mitigated somewhat on the east coast, where owner-operator and fleet separation policies have been in place since 1996 and 1979 respectively (DFO 2003a, 5-6). These policies require that license holders must be active fishermen, and that processing companies cannot hold licenses (and therefore quota), so that fishermen remain active and independent operators.

Arctic and Northern

For most of the stocks, there is insufficient information to make an assessment (DFO sustainable survey for fisheries). Arctic char and Greenland Halibut are thought to be in healthy status but it appears that Northern shrimp and Atlantic mackerel are critically depleted in some regions and without plans.  A significant percentage of the commercial fleet allocations are based on the east coast rather than in the Northern region, although the Northern fishing fleet, allocations, and processing capacity have slowly been expanding with investments and an argument that allocations are unjust, particularly for turbot and shrimp.  As a result, most of the landings are in Greenland and Newfoundland Labrador where secondary processing happens (cf., Nunavut Fishing Strategy).


Canada has some 2.4 million lakes, and almost 9% of its surface is water, yet the state of the inland fishery is not well understood (Cooke and Murchie, 2013). The inland fishery, primarily freshwater, is diverse in scale, geography, purpose and gear.  The Great Lakes provide more of an industrial scale opportunity while smaller water bodies lend themselves to small-scale commercial, aboriginal, recreational (including catch and release, and put and take) and self-provisioning fisheries. As a result, it appears that about half of all freshwater landings, from both wild fishery and aquaculture, come from Ontario (Miller et al., 2021). Most of the recreational fishery is freshwater.  Inland commercial landings have fallen over time, though the sector may still employ some 10,000 people and about $61 million in Gross Production Value (Sundar, 2017). The baitfish industry, supplying recreational anglers, is also significant, especially in Ontario. Although many regions of the country forbid live bait, other areas permit it with regulations regarding which fish can be used and under what conditions.  But there are on-going questions about the state of baitfish stocks (cf. Ontario Bait Management Review, 2012 and Ontario's Sustainable Bait Management Strategy, 2020). The recreational fishery in North America is estimated to represent about 86% of total inland harvest, with the commercial industry at about 12% and the aboriginal fishery at 1% (Cooke and Murchie, 2013)

About 8% of the Canadian resident population is reported to fish inland waters at least once each year, with highest resident participation rates in Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Yukon and NWT.  Ontario and BC have the highest numbers of Canadian non-resident and foreign anglers (DFO, 2015).

Of the 114 COSEWIC assessed freshwater fish species, subspecies, and DUs, 36 are endangered, 35 are threatened, and 32 are of special concern. Nine species have already become extinct, with 2 species extirpated from their native regions (information current as of December, 2021). Overfishing and bycatch, habitat alteration, water taking, and poor water quality, and invasive species are all contributing forces. Pollution is sometimes significant enough to result in consumption advisories.  Some high-profile recreational fisheries in Canada appear to be over-fished but do not necessarily have a COSEWIC status report, including rainbow trout (now has a COSEWIC report), walleye, and northern pike (both of which do not), attributed to angler behaviour, and lack of long-term monitoring  (Cooke and Murchie, 2013). This situation exists despite the evidence that only 1/3 of the recreational fish catch is retained, over half of it in Ontario and Quebec (DFO, 2015).  The Northern inland fishery, however, appears to be a possible area for expansion, especially char and whitefish.  Many potentially eligible lakes and water bodies have yet to be opened to commercial fishing (Nunavut Fishing Strategy).

Monitoring can be challenging because in the artisanal, recreational, and self-provisioning fishery, there can be significant under-reporting (Lynch et al., 2016).  The regional nature of inland fisheries also means that fewer resources are often available, with limited coordination across regions and provinces on data collection and reporting.  Finally, unlike the marine fishery which is typically accessed through ports, spatial access is more varied, which makes monitoring more challenging (Cooke and Murchie, 2013).  Much of the Crown regulation of the inland fishery is under the authority of the provinces, usually a Ministry responsible for natural resources and sometimes through para-government agencies.  Often, what is actually federal jurisdiction has been transferred for management purposes to the provinces through the federal Fisheries Act.